The Battle of Jutland: Should the British Have Done Better?

It was the biggest, deadliest naval battle of WW1, and controversy still rages about the actions of British Admiral John Jellicoe.

Battle of Jutland

WHAT WAS THE BATTLE OF JUTLAND?

There was only one major naval confrontation between Britain and Germany in World War One. It took place near Denmark's Jutland Peninsula on 31 May 1916, and should have been an easy win for the British. We had more ships, more firepower, more expertise. The naval supremacy of Britain was unquestioned. People were expecting a triumph on the scale of Trafalgar.

Instead, it was a bloodbath. The British lost many more battleships, and well over 6,000 British seamen died on the high seas, in hellish infernos. It's true that Jutland was technically a victory, since it sent the Germans packing and halted their ambitions for naval supremacy. But as Dr Andrew Gordon, author of The Rules of the Game, points out: "The British battlecruisers suffered losses out all proportion to any subsequent gain. It was to be of little consolation that Jutland persuaded Germany's naval leaders that such an encounter must never be risked again."

The man who gets most of the blame for this fiasco is Admiral John Jellicoe, commander of the British forces. But is that fair? Should he be condemned for weakness, or praised for his calm caution?

Vice-Admiral David Beatty, Admiral John Jellicoe's second in command.

Vice-Admiral David Beatty, Admiral John Jellicoe's second in command.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE BATTLE?

The actual battle was like something out of a movie, full of twists and turns and powerful personalities. One such personality was Jellicoe's second in command, Vice-Admiral David Beatty. Unlike the straightlaced Jellicoe, Beatty was a hot-headed, gung-ho, swashbuckling type, who was in charge of an advance party of battlecruisers. When Beatty spotted German ships led by his counterpart Franz von Hipper, he didn't hesitate. He ordered his battlecruisers to go in hot pursuit of Hipper's ships, and battle commenced.

The Brits suffered shocking losses almost immediately. HMS Indefatigable was utterly destroyed, with more than 1,000 dead. The Queen Mary, the pride of the British fleet, was also sunk. "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today," Beatty famously said.

To his horror, Beatty then realised he was being led by Hipper into a trap. What lay ahead wasn't just Hipper's small cluster of ships, but the entire German High Seas fleet led by Reinhard Scheer, whose stern personality earnt him the nickname "man with the iron mask".

Faced by the jaws of death, Beatty turned his ships around. Now it was the Germans who were pursuing the British. And now it was the British who were luring the Germans into a trap. Because - unbeknownst to Scheer - the entire British fleet led by John Jellicoe was lying in wait, ready to take the Germans by surprise and eradicate them from the seas.

This was Jellicoe's big moment. And this is where, according to many, he fumbled. When Scheer realised he had to turn and flee, he ordered a massive torpedo strike on Jellicoe's ships to ward them off. Jellicoe had to decide whether to plough on anyway and crush the Germans, or turn away to dodge the torpedoes. He chose the latter option, and Scheer's fleet escaped.

DID JELLICOE MAKE A MISTAKE?

Some crowds actually booed Jellicoe's ships when they returned to Britain. Not exactly a hero's welcome, and Jellicoe's reputation has been tarnished ever since. According to the anti-Jellicoe faction of writers and historians, he had an opportunity to completely decimate the German navy, but his excessive caution and borderline cowardice allowed Scheer to get away, and even allowed the Germans to claim they had won the battle outright. After all, they HAD claimed more lives. No wonder Kaiser Wilhelm II boasted "the spell of Trafalgar is broken".

But the opposing view is that Jellicoe did the right thing. By turning away from the torpedoes, he ensured far less bloodshed on the British side. On top of that, caution was absolutely called for, because the British fleet was so crucial to the war effort. It simply wasn't worth the gamble of going for a total win, because what if the Germans had fought back harder?

Jellicoe is the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.

As Winston Churchill said of Jellicoe, he was the "only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon". Jellicoe knew that being cautious and playing for a "draw" made more sense than risking yet more thousands of lives, and the entire British war effort. Why gamble when the German ships were already on the run? As historian Richard Hough says, "Germany could play with figures for as long as she wished, but British control of the world's sea lanes was unimpaired, the blockade of the enemy as tight as ever."

So should Jellicoe, whose name has faded from the public's minds, be redeemed in our eyes as a great military leader? Or does he deserve obscurity for not delivering a death blow to the Germans?